SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 179 June 2014

Another step forward for TUSC

By mounting the biggest left-of-Labour election challenge since world war two the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) has showed the pivotal role it could play in developing the forces for a new workers’ party, as events put this task ever more firmly on the agenda.

Elections took place on May 22 in 161 local authorities in England, to fill 4,216 seats in around 3,000 wards. A total of 559 candidates in 512 wards stood under the TUSC umbrella across 89 councils, contesting 12% of the seats and 17% of the wards. In addition, TUSC stood for the directly-elected mayors of Lewisham, Newham and Tower Hamlets. In total 68,152 votes were cast for these candidates, polling in the council seats an average share of the vote of 3.4%.

The TUSC challenge in May was greater than anything attempted before in the four-year history of the coalition, co-founded in 2010 by the late Bob Crow. In 2011, the first local elections seriously fought by TUSC, 2% of the seats were contested, 4% in 2012. In 2013, when it was mainly Conservative-controlled county councils up for election, TUSC had a candidate in 5% of the seats. This year was on a different scale.

But it was also on a different scale to any historical left-of-Labour post-war comparator. The highest number of candidates ever stood by the Socialist Alliance, for example, was in 2002, on the same four-yearly local elections’ cycle as this year’s contests (including the London boroughs), with 204 candidates in 187 wards.

Another significant feature was the breadth of the candidates who came forward to stand. Fifty-three were members of the RMT transport workers’ union, one of the constituent organisations of TUSC. But then there were 19 Communication Workers’ Union members who were candidates, 18 members of the National Union of Teachers, 16 PCS members, and 20 members of the University and College Union. From the big Labour-affiliated unions, there were 74 Unison members standing for TUSC and 130 members of Unite. This really was the broadest working class electoral challenge to Labour for generations.

But TUSC is still only a precursor of a future mass workers’ party that would really have the social weight to be able to shape developments. In this election TUSC too felt the impact of the consolidation of UKIP as a mass receptacle of protest and anger at the establishment parties.

In 21 councils – one eighth of those with elections on May 22 – TUSC polled over 1,000 votes. In ten of these TUSC’s score was over 2,000, led by Waltham Forest (5,482 votes), Haringey (4,166), Southampton (3,308), Lewisham (2,735, in addition to the 1,354 votes for TUSC’s candidate for mayor), Sheffield (2,657), Coventry (2,592), Hillingdon (2,260), Enfield (2,162), Salford (2,150), and Tower Hamlets (2,144, plus 871 for the mayor). In five of the 29 councils where TUSC contested over a third of the seats, it scored an average ward vote of over 5%, topped by Salford (9.9%) and followed by Haringey (6.9%), Barnsley (6.4%), Southampton (5.7%) and Newham (5.5%).

But overall the mean average vote for TUSC candidates of 3.4% was down for example on the 5.2% recorded in 2011 – in the elections held in the immediate aftermath of the TUC’s 750,000-strong March Against Austerity. And the rise of UKIP, following the failure of the leaders of the major trade unions to build on the anti-austerity protests and strikes of 2011 and 2012, was the main factor in this.

Of the local council wards TUSC candidates contested in 2014 there were 83 where there had also been a TUSC candidate in 2011. The changed performance of UKIP illuminated in these ‘comparator wards’ is dramatic. In 2011 UKIP only contested 25 of the 83 wards but in 2014 they stood in 60, tripling their average ward vote. In six of these wards TUSC managed to increase its share of vote by over 2% compared to 2011 but in only one was there a UKIP candidate standing. In this context it was an achievement that TUSC’s overall share of the vote in these wards only fell from 4.3% in 2011 to 3.6% this year.

The TUSC national steering committee member, Southampton councillor Keith Morrell, expelled from the Labour Party for voting against the cuts, managed to cut across this trend, being re-elected for his Coxford ward on a 43% share of the vote, with UKIP surging into second place and pushing Labour back to third. But significantly, other ex-Labour councillors who didn’t take Keith’s bold anti-cuts stand – such as three deselected councillors in Barking and Dagenham who stood independently for the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) – lost their seats, coming in well behind UKIP.

TUSC’s challenge has inevitably been sneered at by those clinging to the hope that Labour can be ‘reclaimed’. In Salford and Southampton there was one TUSC voter for every six Labour voters – not a bad ratio at all (and one to nine in Ed Miliband’s Doncaster backyard) – but overall the ratio was one to twelve. It is also the case that the Greens outpolled TUSC – by a ratio of five to two – across the 512 wards TUSC contested. But where election debates were organised (listen to the radio debates on the TUSC website between TUSC candidates and the other parties in Birmingham and Sheffield as examples) they confirmed that Labour and Green councillors offer no defence of council services against ConDem austerity, both explicitly rejecting TUSC’s fighting alternative strategy.

The significance of TUSC’s challenge has unfortunately also been downplayed by some groups who do support electoral campaigns against Labour but who have chosen up to now to remain outside the coalition. The TUSC national steering committee has consistently invited Left Unity, Respect, the National Health Action Party, the SLP, and the Communist Party of Britain to join the coalition with the full rights of a participating organisation. Some individual members of these groups have stood under the TUSC umbrella, using the right to promote their own organisation as they so wished, but as national organisations they all decided to stand separately on May 22nd, fielding 44 candidates between them.

None of them polled disastrously but, more importantly, not significantly different to TUSC, albeit that they were standing on a much smaller scale. Left Unity, for example, stood twelve candidates who won a total of 1,052 votes – 88 votes per candidate – with an average share of 3.1%.

There were 141 TUSC candidates on May 22 who, when they completed the TUSC Authorisation Application form question, ‘are you a member of a political party or group?’, entered ‘none’. In other words TUSC attracted more unaffiliated trade unionists, community campaigners and socialists to stand as candidates under its banner than the total number of candidates mobilised by the groups outside. Really, with the TUSC rules guaranteeing the political identity and organisational autonomy of its constituent parts, what justification is there for them to continue a separate electoral strategy and not join in?

With more forces on board TUSC might have come nearer to the ‘fair coverage’ threshold set by the national broadcasting authorities, which implemented a boycott of TUSC that was emulated by the national press. The only exception was The Independent (8 May). Their article argued that TUSC is "too small to represent a threat to Labour" now but "that could change" in the future, as "Len McCluskey, head of the massive Unite union, has hinted it might break links with Labour" at some point.

Short of such a move by the big unions, however, a persistent struggle still needs to be conducted now to force the pace towards a new mass vehicle for working class political representation. TUSC’s election challenge has shown beyond doubt that it is by far the best-placed formation to play this catalyst role in the period ahead.

Clive Heemskerk

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